A significant chapter of Canada’s seafaring history ended in March with the announcement that the Smith & Rhuland shipyard in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, will close.
The yard was most famous for building the legendary fishing schooner BLUENOSE, which dominated American competition at the International Fishermen’s Races held during the 1920s. The yard also built the replica BLUENOSE II, the replica of the H.M.S. ROSE, and the replica most familiar to Americans the H.M.S. BOUNTY, used in the Marlon Brando version of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
The yard also has a Maine connection. The Grand Banks schooner SHERMAN ZWICKER, now berthed in Boothbay during the winter and at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath for the summer, was built by Smith & Rhuland in 1942.
The March announcement was made by Clearwater Seafoods, current owner of the yard. According to Clearwater spokesman Peter Matthews, 16 workers are employed repairing the BLUENOSE II. When that job is finished in June, the yard will close.
“It’s a great shame, but it’s simply the reality of the situation; there’s no work. The losses at the yard were just too big.”
He added, “One of the problems is that we were getting repair work from the U.S. because of the cheap Canadian dollar, which we don’t have now.”
In mid-April, the Canadian dollar was worth between $0.80 and $0.81 in American currency. A year ago it was only worth $0.75. And from April 2002 to April 2003 it had dropped to $0.62.
As for the yard’s future, Matthews said that Clearwater has it up for sale and is actively looking for a buyer.
“The closing of the Smith and Rhuland yard marks the end of an era in the historic port of Lunenburg,” says Ralph Getson, curator of the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg. “Since 1900 the yard has produced wooden fishing vessels of every description. During the heyday of the Banks fishery the yard often produced eight schooners a year employing 50 shipwrights per vessel.”
Of the schooner that now graces the Canadian dime Getson says, “The yard will forever be synonymous with the famous fishing and racing schooner BLUENOSE which was launched from the yard in 1921 with yard owners Richard Smith and George Rhuland on board as part of the ‘launch party.’ The yard was noted for its fine craftsmanship in vessel construction.”
Getson adds, “When BLUENOSE II was constructed, some of the same men who worked on the original vessel were proud to be part of the construction on the replica.”
But the yard was much more than a few famous vessels. Information provided by the Archives and Collection Society in Picton, Ontario, includes the fact that between 1900 and 1951, for example, the yard built 225 vessels.
Smith & Rhuland also produced a wide variety, including a few infamous craft, according to Getson. “The yard survived the highs and lows of the industry and adapted with the changes,” he says. “During the 1930s they built a few rumrunners, during the Second World War they constructed tugs and auxiliary vessels for the British Ministry of War Transport. They built fishing draggers, coastal freighters, yachts and cabin cruisers.”
But Getson adds, “The demand for new wooden fishing vessels has declined and so the yard has been involved in repair and restoration work for the past 30 years. Our museum vessel, the schooner THERESA E. CONNOR, the last of the saltbankers to sail out of Lunenburg, was built at the yard in 1938. In 1988 the vessel underwent a major restoration at the yard in some cases by the same men who worked on its construction in 1938. The last major contract for the yard was in the early 1990s when the yard foreman and his ‘gang’ became itinerant shipwrights and traveled to the other side of the province to construct the replica ship HEXTOR at Pictou, Nova Scotia.”
Looking to the future, Getson says that the Fisheries Museum has no plans to take over the yard but adds, “It would be great if the yard could continue to operate as an educational project to ensure that the shipbuilding skills are passed on to the next generation.”
On a more personal note Getson concluded, “It will be sad not to be able to go down to the yard and see the steam box percolating away softening plank for another repair job, or to hear the ringing of the caulker’s mallet.”